The big picture
Aug. 20, 2006. 07:50 AM
A ghost appears on the battlefields of competing technologies. It's the ghost of Beta, the home video technology that succumbed in the 1980s to rival VHS. It haunts garage sales where battered Beta versions of movies like Stripes and Police Academy bake in the sun alongside Peter Frampton 8-track tapes.
The ghost might have some company soon. Another home entertainment technology death duel is under way as two different TV technologies — liquid crystal display (LCD) and plasma — vie for dominance of the big-screen, flat-panel television market.
Until recently the technologies weren't really in direct competition, as plasma was more suited to bigger screens while LCD had the edge on smaller ones. Giant LCD sets were available, but they relied on bulky image-projecting equipment behind their screens, and thereby lacked the fashionable thinness of plasma flat-screen units.
But LCD technology is evolving as manufacturers turn out increasingly larger flat-panel units. LCD manufacturers can now make a flat-screen TV as big as 46 inches without compromising picture quality. And they say even bigger sets are in development.
LCD is now in plasma country, and this means war — a war some say plasma can't hope to win.
Electronics giant Sony stopped manufacturing plasma TVs 18 months ago. John Challinor, Sony Canada's general manager of corporate communications, calls plasma a "high maintenance" product.
"The (sets) offer a very good picture, a very bright picture," he says. "But they have serious problems as relates to burn-in." (Burn-in is where an unchanging image stays on your TV screen so long that it gets burned onto its surface.)
Challinor says the static on-screen layout of round-the-clock news channels, where the screen is divided into boxes, is especially problematic. The black bars on a widescreen movie can also burn into a screen.
Challinor describes some other problems:
Plasma sets are very susceptible to temperature fluctuation in a room;
You've got to have it in a location with a consistent temperature range.
They don't like direct sunlight — it distorts your ability to see the screen-face clearly.
The sets don't like to be moved from room to room, because of the sensitivity of the gases inside the screen.
Another factor in Sony's abandonment of plasma was its shorter lifespan. "Plasma has about a 40,000 hour life. LCD has about a 60,000 hour life."
Meanwhile, Challinor says, LCD manufacturers are rapidly correcting the product's deficiencies in the large, flat-panel format.
"LCD technology has advanced significantly in the last 18 months. There were issues with ghosting. LCD couldn't handle fast movement — in a hockey game you'd lose the puck. That's no longer the case."
Challinor is confident plasma's dominance of the flat-panel large-sized TV market is almost over. "LCD does not (currently) have flat panel in the 60- or 70-inch range, but a year from now you'll see that in the marketplace."
The outlook for plasma televisions isn't any sunnier in the office of John Birks, a home and consumer technology specialist at market research firm NPD Group. He points to big changes in Canadian television sales over the past 12 months.
Of overall television sales, 13 per cent were big-screen rear-projection units. These are too chubby to hang like a picture frame on your wall, Birks says, but they do have the giant screen.
Plasma sets, which achieve that elegant, slim look on huge screens, accounted for 6 per cent of unit sales. LCD sets of all sizes accounted for 18 per cent. (The rest of the sales involved other types of televisions, like the old-fashioned cathode-ray tube models and portable transistorized units.)
Birks says TV sales in general are up 9 per cent in the past 12 months, with 2.5 million sets sold.
"If you look at it from the standpoint of LCD and plasma, the percentage increase in plasma was 283 per cent. The percentage increase in LCD was 330 per cent."
Birks, however, warns that such comparisons must be put in context. Yes, LCD sales increased more than plasma sales. But LCD sets are currently smaller than plasma. Plasma competes in the large-size market, where sales are fewer.
Nonetheless, Birks says plasma is in trouble.
"Probably the best analogy people are using is Beta and VHS from the early VCR days," adds Birks. "Some people think that plasma is the Beta. The reason plasma sets exist is they were the only ones with big, flat screens, until recently. LCD (increasingly) offers big screen TVs with a nice format."
Birks says LCDs are a bit expensive right now, so there will be a transition period.
"There's a future for plasma, but I don't think it's strong," he says. If plasma endures, Birks sees it as a lower-cost alternative to LCD in the big screen sizes. "But you can also see prices on LCD dropping. So it's going to be competitive with plasma."
Over in the plasma camp, they're saying it's way too early to start writing any obituaries. Unlike Sony, electronics giants Samsung and Panasonic are still making plasma televisions.
Barry Murray, Panasonic Canada's director of marketing for audio and video products, says plasma has been getting a bad rap.
"There is a group of manufacturers who have, for various business reasons, decided to focus on one technology. (But) rather than talk about that technology's attributes, they talk about other technologies in a negative fashion."
Panasonic intends to continue making both plasma and LCD sets. "We're planning to launch the 103-inch plasma, the world's biggest," Murray says.
And some of the criticisms of plasma technology — like screen-burn — are unfair generalizations, he says.
"You get what you pay for," he says. "The issue with plasma or even LCD is when you buy the tier-three brands, there's always more risk to reliability than when you buy a major brand.
"Panasonic makes both LCD and plasma," he adds. "There's no way we'd risk our brand's reputation on a technology that has inherent flaws like that."
Another record Murray wants to set straight: "There's a perception that plasma uses twice as much power (as LCD). Per screen size inch, they're about the same."
But as the competition heats up, the question of which technology uses more energy has become more and more contentious. U.S.-based environment group Natural Resources Defense Council recently published a study on the energy consumption of televisions. Project manager Noah Horowitz says plasma sets are getting a reputation for being "power hogs," but the criticism isn't quite fair.
"I've been slammed by the plasma manufacturers for singling them out," says Horowitz. "It's true that the televisions that consume the most energy today are plasma, but that's because they're making the biggest sets (with plasma technology)."
In fact, he says, Panasonic this year introduced new plasma models that use 25 per cent less energy than last year's sets.
"We don't want to single out plasmas. It's the big-screen, high-definition TVs (that consume a lot of energy). People are going to bigger screens ... we're seeing in excess of 50 inches. TVs used to be analog, but now we're getting into digital. High definition (digital pictures) require the most information, more pixels, and that's taking more energy."
Horowitz hopes to raise awareness — and maybe some eyebrows — over how much energy these new TV technologies consume.
"I guess the biggest surprise to many consumers — the fact they're not aware of — is if someone were to buy a new large-screen, high definition (set), that unit would use more energy than a new refrigerator over a year.
"On top of that, people are subscribing to cable and satellite TV. Those set-top boxes can use up to half of a refrigerator's power per year."
As plasma and LCD compete, Horowitz says conservation groups in Canada and the U.S. are hoping to influence the battle, spurring the two technologies to outdo each other in energy efficiency.
"If we could cut the energy use of a TV when it's on by 25 per cent, we could cut the electric bill in the U.S. by a billion dollars a year, and prevent 7 million tons of carbon dioxide emissions per year — (carbon dioxide being) a key contributor to global warming," Horowitz says. "We really want manufacturers to get ahead of the curve here."
In Canada, the federal government's Office of Energy Efficiency has a similar goal. Hantz Prosper, the department's acting senior standards engineer, says home entertainment energy consumption is a growing concern as screens get bigger and accessories like DVD and video game players are added.
"What's lacking now is labelling to inform the consumer about the electricity consumption of a new TV," he says. "Sometimes it's not clear if they should go with a large or a small one, so the label is something that could help."
Prosper's office is working on a Canadian standard to make fair comparisons between the energy consumption of televisions. None exists yet, and he says this can account for some of the conflicting claims about which technology — plasma or LCD — is more energy efficient.
In any comparison, he says the sets have to be the same size. But the content on the screen can drastically complicate a comparison. For example, soap operas tend to be dark and consume less energy. Sports events are bright and full of movement, and therefore consume more energy.
The process could take over a year, but once the standards have been set, both Horowitz and Prosper say they want to see energy efficiency information on future television packaging.
Even as the various players take their positions in the plasma vs. LCD battle, the stakes have never been higher. The large-screen home-theatre craze is bigger than ever, says Lori DeCou, director of communications at electronics retailer Future Shop. With a glut of major sporting events in recent months, more and more consumers are buying giant screens.
"The way the television (selling) cycle works is the (December) holidays are the kick-off for us. Superbowl sparks additional sales."
And this year the Olympics, World Cup and NHL playoffs created a stampede of big-screen buyers.
DeCou says the big-screen market can only get bigger. Prices are dropping as low as $2,000 for a big-screen TV, she says, compared to about $8,000 six years ago.
"With real estate, for example, buying a house, the more people want it, the higher the price goes.
"The thing about home technology as a whole, the greater the adoption of it, the more people who want it, the more the price goes down," she adds.
"You can buy a laptop for $600. That used to be unheard of."http://www.thestar.com/NASApp/cs/Con...l=969048863851